By Daniel Bennett, John Brown University
The news that President Donald Trump has formed a legal team to handle questions about the ongoing Russia investigation is noteworthy for many reasons. But those familiar with the Christian Right in American politics were probably most struck by one member of the team: Jay Sekulow, president and chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.
Sekulow’s spot on Trump’s team has raised some eyebrows. After all, Sekulow is not a defense attorney. His tenure at the ACLJ—founded nearly 30 years ago with significant help from culture warrior Pat Robertson—has been marked by battles over religious freedom, abortion, and free speech, not fending off federal investigations.
However, in the course of writing my forthcoming book on the Christian legal movement, I learned quite a bit about Sekulow that makes sense of his inclusion on such a high-profile team. Indeed, Sekulow is well-suited to take up arms for Trump for at least three reasons.
First, Sekulow is at home in the spotlight. He hosts a daily radio show that airs nationally and online. He has been a regular contributor and on-air guest at Fox News. And his bombastic personality has stood out to several other attorneys in the Christian legal movement – asking to remain anonymous, one lawyer told me Sekulow “spends an inordinate amount of time tooting his own horn.” Judging by his past, appearing on various Sunday morning shows to defend Trump is a natural act for Sekulow.
Second, Sekulow is comfortable putting on a partisan hat. Under his leadership, the ACLJ has shown itself to be the most politically minded of any Christian legal interest group. An analysis of the group’s press releases back this up: attention to non-legal (read: political) issues account for nearly 25 percent of the ACLJ’s press releases, by far the most of any group in the Christian legal movement. Whether it is making hay of Obama era controversies (like the Benghazi attack and Operation Fast and Furious) or defending GOP administrations and positions, the ACLJ stands out as the most political organization in its community.
Finally, Sekulow has for years aligned himself with Republican elites. As Jeffrey Toobin notes in The Nine, Sekulow served as an adviser to George W. Bush on judicial nominations, including Bush’s two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court – in fact, Sekulow was one of the few defenders of Harriet Miers’ failed nomination. Sekulow also served as an adviser to Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, and was an early advocate for Jeb Bush during the 2016 campaign. Seen in this light, Sekulow’s ties to Trump are merely part of a broader trend.
So while it might seem odd at first glance (and despite an underwhelming performance opposite Fox News’ Chris Wallace last weekend), Sekulow is in many ways the perfect attorney to vigorously defend Trump. He is aggressive, confident, and does not back down from a fight. Sound like anybody else in the Trump orbit?
Daniel Bennett is an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University. His book, Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement, will be released next month by the University Press of Kansas. He is on Twitter at @BennettDaniel.